Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beautiful, but Deadly

Ok, maybe just dead-smelling. The first tree-blossoms we see at the garden are from the ornamental pear on the north side, pictured here. And this morning was the first time this spring that I caught a whiff of its flowers, which reek like week-old carrion. My first thought was that something must have crawled up to our garden fence and died. Then I remembered the duplicitous nature of this tree, which smells terrible for about two weeks, but provides wonderful shade for at least eight months...
My third thought was that I should write it down on my calendar. Now before you start wondering what kind of calendar this might be, I'll tell you that I keep it for objective reasons.
It wasn't too long after we started our first internship with Steve Moore out in Pennsylvania that I realized the natural world has a lot to say to a seasoned farmer. Signs after the manner of Punxutawny Phil, but much more accurate. One crop would go in the ground when the daffodils bloomed, some things would get started when the walnuts leafed out, and a number of roots would get left in the ground til after the first frost. Whether these were statements about warming soil temperatures, some critical amount of light in a day, or the edibility of certain crops, farmers who knew would swear (and plant and harvest) by them.

And so, when we knew we'd be in Willits for a few years, I started keeping track of different annual mile-markers, like the buckeye trees blossoming and buckeyes dropping, the first rainfall after summer, the first salamander spotted, and so on. Of course, we'd need to have been there much longer than we were to have made any sense of these events.
Now, however, we plan to be in one place for a good long while. I already have recorded the lilacs leafing out (4/3, at left), the first morel spotted (4/11, courtesy of our 80° Sunday last weekend), first tree swallows in the garden (4/13), and first dandelion flowers out (4/10). The next step will be to try and remember what I noted the year before...

Anyone who has been to a class I've taught will tell you my biggest piece of advice for any gardener or farmer: observation is vital. Pay attention to what you're doing and what you see happening; it's the only way to learn, and the only way to salvage a failure. Otherwise, you have no idea why a crop succeeds or fails to thrive, and it is impossible to recreate excellent outcomes reliably.
In this case, as I noted, it will take a long time and a lot of experiments before we can put our fingers on what the natural world is telling us about the coming season. But we don't have anything better to do anyway...


  1. Man, what great stuff! One of my sadnesses about moving on from Spruce Knob is that I just last year started to keep track of all this. Speaking of salamanders, I saw my first on a walk today. They do love the wet. In thinking about moving on, and attempting to gauge how much room I have for stuff, I've been thinking about what things might be worth transplanting...

  2. Definitely the salamanders. That's what I'd make sure to take :)

  3. Beautiful but deadly for sure! Bradford Pear trees smell absolutely awful and are best viewed from afar :-) (They smell that way to attract the flies that pollinate them). Those are some great tips and we look forward to seeing your garden one day!